The Reverend in his quick, excited tongue, proclaims the end times are near. Every headline becomes an affirmation and a warning. As his excitement grows, he slams his fists on the lectern, stomps across the stage, his pacing accelerates in volume and pitch, until his vaulted voice builds to a battle cry of fire, brimstone, and redemption.
The congregation nods their heads, stoically looking to their sleepy Bibles. Few follow the Reverend’s sermon, but all agree with its immanence.
A child, I wait for the shouts from the congregation, the crowd leaping from their pews or patting knees. I wait for the resounding “Amen,” deafening in its wake, to lunge through the church and spill out into the parking lot.
When my mother was a girl, she attended all night revivals where prayers flowed like wine.
Quilted sky, holy world, but we are here, on the ground, on the soil and of the water. My mother, a scared little girl standing stern. What she remembers, and retells years later, is that a demon shot from the body of a possessed man that night. The demon hit the ceiling and was cast out by the preacher. This is the child’s story the woman still believes.
“Good folk believe in God. You’re a good boy, Scott. You were raised right.”
We eat niggertoes; we jew down our neighbor; we take care of our own.
“We are good country people and the Lord has given us his book. We are the salt of the Earth.”
I walk into the paneled church, into the easy familiar setting: organ, piano, dismal florescent lights. This particular breed of church is always the same, a little holly at Christmas, colorful flowers in the spring, Home Interior depictions of Jesus walking on water, holding a lamb.
For years I walked into those churches and sat on the pews, hands folded nicely, wearing my little suit. I touched the hymnals, felt the gold letters on the leather book. I smelled the stale yellow pages, and read the Holy words.
My adolescent questions always stumped the old ladies who volunteered to teach Sunday school.
I needed to learn about the book of Revelations with its seven-headed dragons and candelabras; those delirious madman images struck my imagination and I wanted to know what they meant.
I wanted to know why only one book of the Bible was written by a woman.
I wanted to know: If God created the world, who created God?
I wanted to know: if the world is going to end, why must I be in it? Why should I go to school or build a life if it’s all just going to end.
What I needed to know but did not have the sophistication to ask, was: If this is the world and it is given to us only to be taken away by fire and blood and a seven headed dragon—how can we love it, and one another, and God?
There were no answers to these questions.
So I was told, “Honey be quiet.”
So I was told “Read your lesson.”
So I was told “Tithe the preacher.”
So I was told “Be quiet when the reverend is talking.”
So I was told “Don’t ask so many questions.”
So I was told “That’s one of God’s mysteries.”
So I was told “Sit here, wait for me.”
I am still sitting in that church. I may have shaken the preacher’s hand and opened the door, but I did not walk out. I am still a child, sitting in that church, hearing:
“And you ask can God forgive a murderer, yes! If they repent their ways and ask forgiveness. Can God forgive a rapist, yes if they ask for the Lord’s forgiveness—yes they, too, can be saved. Can the Lord accept a homosexual, yes, even a homosexual if they repent of their ways and come right with the Lord God Almighty.”
And I’m still wondering, when will I open that old wooden door? When will I fully come to see that as we sat in that tiny paneled box, a world waited for us outside. The creatures of the field were unaffected by the rhetoric we passed amongst ourselves. Love was a white warm sun in the springtime, and it shined down on me and my family and our rusty old black pickup and the son everyone knew wasn’t quite right.
There was a breeze through the window and fried chicken on the stove. There was gravy and dumplings, and cherry pies when the trees were in season. My grandmother, making dinner every Sunday whether anyone came around or not. And there was never a need to ask for that which I was already given, never a need to accept a creed in place of my own intuition, never a need to place the name “God” on this simple gift of living.
Could Jesus have known this much? Would he have spent his time in a little paneled box, preaching a coiffeured love from an archane book his followers approach fundamentally selective.
Armageddon will come if we create it. What if, instead of fire and brimstone, we awaken to the possibility that the kingdom of Heaven is here, on Earth, and the tools for paradise are already in our hands.